Of This, I Am Certain: Letting Go of What We Can’t Have and Don’t Need

The voices that shaped my earliest religious memories were well intended. They passed on to me the understandings and traditions that had been handed to them by their parents and grandparents, pastors and Sunday school teachers. I say this as a preamble, a disclaimer of sorts, because I do value those people and places that shaped my earliest religious imagination. I have many wonderful memories of many wonderful people, and I wouldn’t trade them. They shaped me. They continue to shape me. And I am grateful. 

However, looking back there were two things that I was handed, things that were central to our way of approaching faith, God, and people, things that I now see as problematic. First, I was given fear as a primary lens through which to experience God. To be sure, I have spent too much of my life fearing God; not in the “reverencing or honoring” way, but in the “I am terrified of you,” way. If God is the source of your terror, to whom can you turn? Further, God always seemed distant, angry, and disapproving, and there was no real way to know you were ok with God. After all, you could die at any moment, and any unrepented of sin would damn you to Hell for all eternity. I can vividly remember being in elementary school and being terrified to go to sleep. What if I don’t wake up? Meeting God didn’t seem to be an inviting option. I would fall asleep listening to cassette tapes: We Are the World, the theme from Ghostbusters, and Elvis were favorites. They helped me calm down; they assuaged my fear for a moment. 

Then, there was the second thing I was given: certainty. I was taught not just to know, but to be certain about what I believed. Because having the certainty of our convictions was seen to be synonymous with the accuracy of our convictions. Doubt was the enemy, a chink in the armor through which Satan would wreck our faith. Our interpretation of the Bible had to be defended, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Actually, clinging to certainty in the face of evidence to the contrary was commended. Being sure, being certain, were essentially the equivalent of being faithful. 

To say my understanding of faith has changed drastically over the past fifteen years would be a massive understatement. Sometimes people I once knew more familiarly will tell me they are praying for me, but I don’t think they mean it in the encouraging way, but in the “I pray you’ll get right with the Lord before it’s too late,” way. And, as you might imagine, my relationship to fear and certainty have also changed. Now I understand that one of these things we don’t need, and one we can’t have. 

We don’t need fear, friends. We just don’t. Fear doesn’t bring out the best in us. Fear elicits our worst. Fear causes us to exclude “those people,” because they are unfamiliar, have different skin color, speak a different language, or hold a different perspective. Fear causes us to attack those we exclude, because the only way to be safe and secure is to strike preemptively against our “enemies.” Fear ultimately paralyzes us. We can’t move forward into new opportunity or progress because fear has convinced us that it is safer to shrink back than to step forward. The writer of 1 John puts it like this:

We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.
(4v16,18, CEB)
God is love. That has always struck me. The claim isn’t that “God is loving,” although that is true and good. The claim here is much more radical. God, at the very core and essence of what God is, is love. Further, love drives away fear. Just as light, even the smallest flicker of a flame, dispels the darkness, love removes the dark cloud of fear from our lives. When fear is gone, love can make us whole and complete (the real meaning of “perfect” in the above passage). As beloved ones we can begin to live and act out of that wholeness. Fear is the enemy of wholeness, because fear is the opposite of love. I know, if we were playing a word association game and I said “love,” you would instinctively answer back with, “hate.” And you’d be correct. Remember, however, that fear is what produces hate. Once you allow fear to cause you to exclude others, you are a couple steps away from hating them. We need love, not fear
Which brings me to the other thing, the one we can’t have. I know this is alarming to some people, but we can’t have certainty. We just can’t. It isn’t available to us, especially when it comes to matters of faith (are you wondering if I’m certain about this?). Certainty implies some form of validation, some proof of which we do not have access. Seriously. Our best proof for what we believe is often that it feels true, but the conviction that something is true doesn’t make it so.  For example, to believe in God isn’t the same thing as having certainty that God is, that God exists. Right? Think about this: there are roughly 36,000 Christian denominations; all of them believe their way of thinking about God/Jesus/faith/Bible is correct (because, why would you believe something if you thought it was incorrect?). If being certain that I’m right, and you’re wrong is the key to my experience of faith or God, then we are all in big trouble. Thankfully, that just isn’t the case. 
We believe, but we don’t see.
Which might be the point.
I don’t think we can have certainty. It just isn’t available to us. What is available to us, however, is faith. Let me clarify what I mean by faith. I don’t mean the sort of name-it-claim-it stuff you see on religious broadcasting (although I was tempted to try it when my A/C went out last week). I don’t mean believing in things, in the sense of believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. What I mean by faith is much more practical and accessible. Faith, for me, means trust.  Hebrews 11 gives a beautiful description of faith, one that is obscured by most translations. In our quest for certainty, we translate Hebrews 11v1 something like this:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV)
I know what you’re thinking right now. “Look,” you exclaim, “faith is the assurance of what we do not see!” But, before we leave this text, take a look at the rendering in the Young’s Literal Translation, which as the name indicates, seeks to translate the biblical texts from the original languages, literally. While all translations are interpretations to some extent, I find that in many cases the YLT preserves some words/ideas/concepts that often, for lack of a better way of putting it, get interpreted out.  Notice the YLT rendering of Hebrews 11v1:
And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction
Faith is confidence, conviction…trust. Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t study or challenge what you think. Faith doesn’t mean ignoring the doubt or questions and clinging to certainty. Faith means trusting enough to engage those things. Faith is trusting that whatever, Whoever, it is holding us up, our correctness is not a pre-condition for our belovedness. We are loved, period. We probably have some things right. We definitely have some things wrong. Even better, though, is the reality that we are loved and held in grace through it all. 
I wish I could go back to that elementary school kid version of me, lying awake, fretting and worrying. I wish I could tell that version of me that there’s nothing to fear. That God is far better than I could imagine. That I can rest in the unknown, the unknowable. That I can trust the goodness of Love. Deep down, though, that version of me always knew. Despite all my religious conditioning, I had great parents who loved me well. Now I understand how their love actually paved the way for my shift in understanding God and faith differently, from a place of love instead of fear. I hope to give my own son that gift.
So, while I am uncertain about many things, if I had to write one thing down in sharpie, if I were given a prompt to complete that said, “Of this, I am certain…,” this is what I would say: If I’m certain of anything, it’s that God is love. And when we allow that love to work in us and through us, there’s nothing to fear. 
And if that’s true, we’re going to be just fine.

Walking the Pastoral Tightrope

Inevitably, there’s always someone who says it. They don’t mean to be demeaning or to diminish the work you do. They don’t mean to sound cavalier about what you’ve given your life to do and be. At least I hope that’s true. 

But, nevertheless, every time I hear it, I feel frustrated. 

“You’re a pastor, so you really only work on Sunday. What do you do with the rest of your time?”

And you realize, when someone says some variation of the above, that they really do think all a pastor does is stand up on Sunday to give a teaching/sermon/talk. They don’t know about the hours of preparation, the hospital visits, the meetings, or the countless stories into which you are invited–some full of joy, some full of pain. They don’t know about that feeling you have at the end of a teaching, that feeling that your soul has just been bared before an entire room full of people, which for some has raised the central existential question of “what’s for lunch?”

The reality is, there are as many expectations of what a pastor is or should be as there are people in the room.

Some expect her to be a wise sage.
Some expect him to be ever-present and available.
Others want her to preach sermons that focus on “those people,” or for him to avoid any mention of politics, and just preach the truth (which often means affirming their preconceived ideas, not challenging them). 

There’s never a shortage of expectations or opinions about who pastors should be.
The job description is ever evolving. 

I’ve been in a pastoral role since I was 19. That’s way too young, by the way. It used to make me so mad when people would say, “You’re awfully young to be a pastor.” The truth is, they were right, and they don’t say it any more, much to my chagrin. Alas, I digress. My point is that for almost 20 years now I’ve been in this role, and my understanding of what it is and means is still growing. But, if I had to say, “A pastor is X,” then here’s what I would say:

Being a pastor is about holding the tension between the pastoral and the prophetic.

First, the pastoral role. “Pastoral” here connotes the role of a shepherd. Someone who comes alongside to offer guidance and care. This facet of being a pastor is where relationships are cultivated and bonds are formed. It’s the hospital visit, dedicating a new baby, offering comfort during a time of loss, presiding at a wedding, being a sounding board, seeking to offer whatever wisdom you have. The pastoral role is about joining people in their journey and, together, pursuing transformation. When most people think of a “good pastor,” they probably think of someone who was there for them, nurturing them, encouraging them. This aspect of being a pastor is so very important. 

Then, there’s the prophetic role. By “prophetic” I don’t mean “predicting the future.” That’s a misnomer. In the biblical tradition, a prophet is someone who speaks a message from God. This often takes the shape of speaking truth to power, challenging convention and status quo, casting a vision of what could be, and being a voice for the marginalized and the victims of said power.

Notice these lines from the Hebrew prophets:

The prophet Amos, speaking for God, says, 

“I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [5v21-24, CEB]
The prophet Jeremiah challenged those among the religious leadership, who believed that the Temple protected them from judgment, in spite of their mistreatment of the most vulnerable among them:
“This is what the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. Don’t trust in lies: “This is the LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple! The LORD’s temple!” No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.” [7v3-7, CEB]
These are two examples of a vast tradition of prophets who challenged hypocrisy, injustice, and inequality. This tradition has lived on. Jesus was considered a prophet in his day, one who spoke and embodied a message from God. To speak more contemporarily, people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died challenging the evils of segregation and racism, are in this same vein, this prophetic tradition. 
And we need the prophetic voices today. We need those who will risk their success, their comfort, or their position to speak truth to power; not because of partisanship, but because of truth. We need those who will refuse to sit quietly by while injustice becomes the norm, and instead, rattle the cages, make noise, and proclaim the justice and love of God.
This, friends, is a vital part of the pastoral calling. If pastors only speak polite platitudes, reinforce preconceived ideas and prejudice, live safely and collect a paycheck, then we have betrayed our calling and our tradition. Simply put, a pastor who doesn’t make you uncomfortable sometimes, who doesn’t challenge what you “know,” who doesn’t push you beyond your comfort zone, isn’t fulfilling the role he or she has been given. 
I don’t mean what we often think: pastors who yell and scream, who condemn “those” people, and keep long lists of who’s in and who’s out. 
I mean pastors who challenge our racism, who call us to generosity, who critique our power structures that benefit the few on top. I mean pastors who refuse to marginalize people who are made in the image of God, just because it’s good for the bottom line. I mean pastors who stand courageously for truth, justice, and compassion. I’m beyond grateful to know many of these pastors. They inspire me, and I want to be more like them when I grow up.
Of course, we also need the pastoral function of a pastor. That is essential to the caring for and leading of a community. But we do not need it at the expense of the prophetic function. We need pastors who will, as it is said, ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
Being a pastor, some days, feels like walking a tightrope across a vast chasm with no net. At any moment you could lose your footing and fall into the canyon below. Yet, our love for people, our desire to participate in the transformation of ourselves, others, and our world, drives us forward. Our hope for a more just, generous, and compassionate world keeps calling us to walk this tightrope. And so, we walk. 

Getting Back to Our Roots: The Church As a Subversive Community

I would imagine that, for many people, Church has become synonymous with the status quo. After all, Christian communities have, throughout history, often been the most vocal defenders of the way things are. For evidence of this look no further than the position many Christians have taken on equality issues, whether it be racial, gender, or LGBTQ people. While there have been pockets of Christian communities that have been on the leading edge of such movements, the Church, writ large, has not been. 

This hasn’t always been the case. The roots of the Christian community are steeped in subversion, a refusal to accept that the way things are, are the way they must be. A cursory glance of the book of Acts shows our spiritual forebearers being thrown in jail, publicly maligned, and even killed because they refused to accept the status quo. Christianity, in its nascent form, was rebellious. 

Then Constantine “converted.” Then Christians were given the backing of the empire. Then the Christian community had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were, because the way things were was good for business. Thus, the Church in many places, has been a defender, not a challenger, of the status quo.

But yesterday, I had this profound experience as we were singing at MCC. We were singing a song called One Thing Remains, and there was a line I’ve heard dozens of  times, but it grabbed my attention, as if I’d just heard it for the first time. It went like this:

On and on and on and on it goes
Before, it overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains
So, one thing remains.

This one thing, the one thing that makes us unafraid, is the love of God. This complete, whole love drives away our fear, brings light into our darkness. Then, after singing this song, we celebrated the Eucharist together. We were given bread and wine, and invited to internalize them, to make these symbolic elements part of us.

 Yesterday at MCC, we were told not to be afraid, and then we celebrated the Eucharist.
And it hit me like a ton of bricks: this was act of subversion. 

We were subverting a culture that excels in making us afraid. Seriously, turn on the news. Listen to our presidential candidates. Talk to your neighbor. Ask your third cousin twice removed on your mother’s side. We are being conditioned to be afraid.

We are being told to fear
people of differing political perspectives,
people with different religious convictions,
people with different skin color,
and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Be afraid, we are told. Be very, very afraid. 

Add to this the way we are being told how to “fix” the problem, how we can be really great. We need to be stronger. We need to assert power over our enemies and allies alike. We need to distance “them.” We need to become wealthier. We need to dominate.

Yet, yesterday at MCC I was reminded that God is love–whole, complete love. And this kind of love that God is drives away fear (1 John 4v8). To stand in the midst of a fear based culture and declare that we won’t be afraid, because Love brought us into this world, and this Love will sustain us, is a defiant, subversive act. 

Then, to follow such a declaration by taking bread and wine, broken and poured out, is to insist that this is how the world will be healed. The world won’t be saved by another empire drunk on its own power and importance. The world won’t be mended by more fractures and divisions. The world will be saved, healed, and restored through generous, self-giving love. The kind of love that we see in Jesus, naked and bleeding, praying for his executioners.

Yesterday, at MCC, I was reminded just how subversive Church could be. I was reminded that, in our culture, refusing fear and celebrating the counterintuitive way the world can be healed is a defiant act, indeed.

So, let’s keep being defiant.
When we are handed fear, let’s reject it in favor of love.
When we are prodded toward division, let’s seek understanding.
When we are sold the myth of redemptive violence, let’s reject it in favor of restoration and peacemaking.
When we are told that greatness is defined by might and wealth, let’s choose the definition Jesus gave us: service and compassion.

The world needs defiant, subversive communities that seek to infuse it with hope, peace, generosity, faith, and most of all, love. 

Let’s be those kinds of people in the world, shall we?

Black Lives Matter and Why We Need to Say So

My son is more like me than I ever imagined another human being could be. We both love tacos, pulpy orange juice, pistachios, super heroes, and sports.We both have the gift (?) of sarcasm. Once when I picked him up from daycare, when he was three or so, the owner told me she had no doubt whose child he was.  On Sundays we dress alike. He even crosses one leg over the other when he reads, just like I do. 

There is one difference between us. As he puts it, his skin is dark and mine is light. This isn’t a new discovery for him, but it has been something he’s talked more about lately. And when we talk about it we talk about how much we are alike, and how beautiful his skin is, and how this difference is something that is wonderful. 

Yet, almost every day I am reminded that some people in our world don’t see these different hues we share to be wonderful. Friends, we absolutely have a racism problem in America, and this is a problem that keeps me awake at night. Someday (too soon!) my child with dark skin will drive off in a car, without me, and to be honest, that terrifies me. 

Please hear me: I am not saying all police officers are bad. They aren’t. I would be willing to wager that the vast majority are wonderful human beings who have given their lives to protect and serve our communities. They deserve our appreciation and respect. I believe that is a fact, and the officers I know personally are these kinds of people. And what happened in Dallas was an evil act of violence carried out by an ill person, and it should be condemned in the strongest of terms. 

All violence is evil. Every violent act is wrong.
All deaths should be grieved.

But we cannot deny that some of those who wear badges aren’t seeking to protect and serve everyone in their community. Some use their position of power to dominate, humiliate, and in the worst cases, commit murder under the guise of law and order. That, too, is a fact. To demonize all police officers would be wrong, of course, and I don’t hear that happening by and large.  It would also be wrong to ignore the reality that some, a minority, are using their position and authority to enact their biases. This isn’t just true of police; people in all kinds of authority positions abuse their power: clergy, business, you name it. And the “bad apples” cannot be allowed to spoil the bunch.

Which brings me to the phrase, and the movement, Black Lives Matter. Many white people I’ve talked to take exception to this phrase. “All lives matter,” they say. Here’s the thing, all human life is sacred. All human life has inestimable value and worth. Regardless of skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, political affiliation–any of the boundaries or labels we create–every human being is made in the image of God, and deserves dignity and respect. That’s true. Yet, I believe we must affirm and proclaim that Black lives matter. 

I have a friend who has two daughters. He loves them both deeply. He’s a good dad. However, when one of his two daughters was diagnosed with an illness that was considered critical, this daughter received the focus in a different way. She was sick and needed to receive treatment, and he would have moved heaven and earth (and did) to make sure she was ok. Did the other daughter cease to matter? Of course not! But in that moment, the daughter who was in danger had to become the focal point. Can you imagine asking him, “You’re taking off work to spend time with this daughter but not that one. Doesn’t she matter, too?” See?

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the persecuted,” we don’t stand up and protest, “But what about the rich, the powerful, and the non-persecuted?” Why? Because we get what Jesus is doing. He is announcing Good News to people who have been marginalized, excluded, and devalued by the system. 

This is why we must insist that Black lives matter. Because there are those who don’t yet know that it’s true. Because a parent should not have to worry that their child will become a victim because of the color of their skin. Because racism is evil, and against the very essence of the Kingdom of God. 

And we must keep saying it because right here in the USA, not too long ago, black bodies were bought and sold, refused human dignity, and banned from water fountains and lunch counters. 

To say “All lives matter” isn’t even true. Until we all know that Black lives matter, all lives really don’t.

 

Political Correctness? If that’s the best we can do, then yes.

Political correctness gets a bad rap

There, I said it.

I think being politically correct, if we define it as avoiding language and actions that exclude and marginalize disadvantaged and discriminated groups of people, is an essential practice for a civil and compassionate society. Really, it’s the least we could do.  The problem is that many people decry attempts at political correctness as weak, spineless attempts at not offending anyone.

“You need to grow a backbone,” some say.

“Tell it like it is,” they demand.

That phrase always frustrates me, “Tell it like it is.” I always wonder, “according to who?” Who’s “it” should I tell it like? That’s the issue. We assume there is some objective place from which we can make pronouncements about “it,” and that everyone should just accept our opinion or understanding. This, by the way, is where so much of the persecution narrative many Christians are holding comes from. They want to “tell it like it is,” meaning saying whatever they want about a particular group of people or issue, and they don’t want anyone to push back or criticize them for it. Too often, deriding political correctness is simply a smokescreen for people who want to say rude, unChristlike things to others.

Beyond that, the “tell it like it is” crowd aren’t as interested in truth as much as they are just being in-your-face. This is especially true among religious people who think that it’s our calling to offend people. After all, Paul talks about the “offense of the cross.”

Yet there’s a difference in the offense of the cross and just being offensive.

The offense of the cross challenges our categories of insider/outsider, of who’s acceptable. Being offensive seeks to further distance others by reinforcing such categories.

The offense of the cross insists that the world won’t be put back together and healed through perpetuating violence and injustice. Being offensive seeks to perpetuate shame and exacerbates pain.

The offense of the cross declares that self-giving love is the greatest value, and the path to transformation. Being offensive seeks to make us feel more superior and correct than those who are on the receiving end of our “telling it like it is.”

Caring about the feelings of others, and seeking to minimize discrimination and marginalization aren’t bad things. Actually, they are values that should matter to Christians, because they are part of the DNA of our tradition.

There’s this beautiful line in Colossians that reads like this:

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. [Colossians 4v5-6, NIV]

Let your conversation be full of grace. What is grace? Grace is gift. Unmerited, unearned gift. And salt. In the ancient world salt was known for its medicinal, preservative, and healing properties. Let your conversation be full of grace and seasoned with salt. This can’t happen when our goal is to hurl insults, to wound, or to make others feel small. When our conversations aren’t marked by grace and salt, they tend to be full of unchecked anger and dehumanization.

Recently, Brian McLaren shared an original poem called In Praise of Political Correctness. I love this line in particular:

Sure, I’m all for telling unpopular and inconvenient truths.
I’m for straight talk and rocking all boats that need rocking.
But I’m not for sinking them
If there are breathing human beings aboard.
Words have consequences, political consequences,
So consider the consequences when you detonate your words.

Our words have power. We can use them to destroy and tear down, or to build up and heal. We can use them to give life and encouragement, or to take life and create despair.

This reminds me of the line from Ephesians 4 about “speaking truth in love.” Notice that. Truth doesn’t have to be divorced from love. Yet, many are speaking their truths today without a hint of love. It seems that, for some, truth and love are polar opposites. Perhaps, however, we can’t have one without the other: when love isn’t present, truth isn’t either.

Miroslav Volf recently posted the following on Twitter:

Freedom to offend doesn’t somehow transmute the vice of hurling insults at others into a virtue.

Political correctness, if it’s the best we can do, is necessary.
Yet, I wonder, is it really the best we can do?
Could we seek to be even more gracious?

Could those of us who are part of the Christian tradition seek to speak our truths in love, seasoned with salt and marked by grace, so that our words bring hope and not despair, healing and not wounding, freedom and not shame?

We not only can, we must.

 

The Evangelical Mess of Pottage

There’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures about twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. The oldest, Esau, was a man’s man. He was hairy (which is actually an important detail that comes up in the story), a successful hunter, and his father’s favorite. Jacob, the younger brother, was a quiet homebody, and it just so happens, the favorite of his mother. From birth these boys were living in a powder keg and giving off sparks. (Yes. You’re welcome)

To add an additional layer of complexity, Jacob was also willing to scheme, connive, and manipulate to get what he wanted. Jacob was a weasel. And very early in the story of these two brothers, Jacob’s willingness to be weaselish  comes to the forefront. 

Here’s the story, found in Genesis 25v29-34, CEB:

Once when Jacob was boiling stew, Esau came in from the field hungry and said to Jacob, “I’m starving! Let me devour some of this red stuff.” That’s why his name is Edom.
Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright today.”
Esau said, “Since I’m going to die anyway, what good is my birthright to me?”
Jacob said, “Give me your word today.” And he did. He sold his birthright to Jacob. So Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew. He ate, drank, got up, and left, showing just how little he thought of his birthright.
Esau is hungry, and Jacob just so happened to be at the right place at the right time to take advantage of his brother’s plight. I mean, Jacob doesn’t really hesitate. There’s no pause, to suggest he’s pondering what to ask of his brother. Why doesn’t he just give his famished brother some stew? See, told you. Jacob is a weasel. 
But Esau seems to have a flair for the dramatic. 
Is he really starving to death? That’s his response, right?  He essentially asks, “What good is a birthright if I’m dead?” And he sells his status, responsibilities, and benefits as the first born son in the family to his weasely little brother. And, when the time came for the blessing of the oldest son Esau’s decision, combined Jacob’s craftiness, left the former hurt, angry, and on the outside looking in. 
The New Testament even takes a swipe at Esau for this decision. 
Make sure that no one becomes…ungodly like Esau. He sold his inheritance as the oldest son for one meal. (Hebrews 12v16, CEB)
Esau’s decision to give up so much for so little should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. Which brings me to something that happened yesterday. A day ago, hundreds of “Evangelical” leaders met in a closed-door meeting with The Donald, so he could “sell” them on why he was their best friend.
Reports say that Trump began by saying, “I’m so on your side, I’m a tremendous believer, and we’re gonna straighten it out…”
And by most accounts, the vast majority of the Evangelical leaders in the room were eating it up. Many of them are now likely to support this “tremendous believer,” Donald Trump. The problem is, The Donald’s fruit…stinks. If you don’t believe me, a simple Google search would reveal the mean, racist, mocking, non-Jesus-like things he’s been saying all over the country. 

But, to be honest, I’m not surprised by Donald Trump being…Donald Trump. Really. This post isn’t about him. What’s shocking is that Evangelical leaders are willing to throw their identity, morals, and integrity aside…and for what? A bowl of stew. A mess of pottage. Political clout. The chance to influence the world, not through their life and how they conduct themselves, but through Trump’s promise to make Macy’s employees tell customers “Merry Christmas.” That’s the thing: these Evangelical leaders, deep down, are seeking to have their message spread. Yet, they have hitched their cart to the wrong horse (Jesus is the only horse to which Evangelicals should be hitching). And history will not be kind to them.  After all, if you have to sell out your integrity and values to get your message heard, you likely need a new message.

The term “Evangelical” used to mean something. In Greek it means, “good news.” In our culture it means jockeying for power, dominance, and a seat at the table. The very things Jesus said were not to be the norm among his disciples. 

Yesterday, as I watched coverage and read articles about the Trump Evangelicals,  I couldn’t help but think of Paul’s baffled, incredulous, criticism of the community in Galatia:

I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. (Galatians 1v6, CEB)

Friends, the gospel of Trump is no gospel at all. The gospel tears down walls, brings healing and wholeness, and seeks real, restorative justice in the world.

A gospel that is not good news, of great joy, for all people is not the gospel. It’s a strategy. It’s political maneuvering. And it’s selling your birthright for a mess of pottage. 

Rethinking Sin: What if our greatest sin is being less-than-human?

Sometimes people ask me to talk about sin. I’ve actually been accused of being “soft” on sin before. After all, my sermons don’t consist of regular condemnations of people who do this or that. But, I actually talk about sin a lot. Like, all the time.

When asked, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves. With this as the litmus test, any action or attitude that is unloving toward God, neighbor, or self would be something that transgresses the command to love. We would call this “sin.”

So, what do we call it when we refuse to love our enemies and, instead, seek revenge against them? Sin.

What do we call stinginess, greed, and hoarding all we have for our own comfort, when so many are living in poverty and lacking the basic necessities of life? Sin.

What do we call actions and attitudes that are hateful, biased, or bigoted toward others with whom we disagree or don’t understand? Sin.

What do we call it when we live our lives for ourselves, and only for ourselves, with no thought for how our lives impact and affect others? You guessed it, sin.

But this isn’t what people usually mean when they want to hear about sin. They typically mean, “Let’s hear about other people’s sin.” After all, it’s convenient to seek out someone you feel is worse off morally than you are, and use your correctness to shame them into being more like you.

Christians are good at organizing against abortion; we don’t care much about greed.

And this is part of the problem. We spend our time and energy on a “Who’s the worst sinner” contest, focusing on these specific things that people do (or don’t do) that we deem sinful, and yet we never get to the core of what we mean by sin.

What is sin? It isn’t just lying, cheating, stealing, or bowing down to idols. We focus on symptoms, when the issue is far larger than any of the symptoms themselves.

While I am very reluctant to ever pluck a single verse out of the Bible, out of context, and build a theology around it, I do want to look at a verse that might give us some insight into what sin might actually be, and why it’s so destructive.

In Romans 3v23, Paul says this:

All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory…

(The next line, verse 24 is amazing by the way…so check that out when you have time!)

So here’s the news: we all have sinned. I don’t hear anyone arguing that point, either. It’s as plain as the noses on our faces.

He goes on to say that this “all-have-sinned-ness” in which we participate means that we have fallen short of “God’s glory.” That doesn’t sound good, but what is God’s glory?

I used to think God’s glory has something to do with God’s reputation. That falling short of God’s glory meant that God had set the standard for us (basically, perfection), and we had fallen short, missed the mark. After all, “missing the mark” is what the word sin means. We failed to live up to perfection, to praise God enough, to thank God enough, and this means we are sinners.

But the idea of God depending on us for God’s self esteem makes God seem insufficient. Does God really need us to tell God how great God is all the time? Is that our greatest missing of the mark?

St. Irenaeus was a bishop who lived in the late second century in, what we call today, France. One of my favorite Irenaeus quotes goes something like this:

The glory of God is a human being fully alive.

Isn’t that great? And, if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Human beings are God’s image bearers, the representations of the divine in the world. We have been gifted with the opportunity to join God and to participate in the ongoing creation and healing of the world. That is what it means to be human, to be God’s partners.

In this framework, then, sin and falling short of God’s glory would mean something different. If God’s glory is a human being fully alive, then falling short of that glory would be humans being less-than-fully-alive.

We often say, “I’m only human,” to explain our failings. Yet, the problem with this is that it assumes humanness is innately bad. If that’s true, God never got the memo. Humanness is good. We were called “very good” by our Maker, and no amount of wrong can undo that original blessing. The problem isn’t that we are human; the problem is that we too often live in ways that are beneath us. Sin is what happens when we choose to live in ways that are subhuman.

Take greed, for example. When we choose to base our identity and self-worth on how much we can obtain and corral, this isn’t a human action that leads to being fully alive. Greed is a sub-human defining of ourselves, not as God’s beloved children, but as somehow deficient without more. Our identity is shaped and grounded in lack, not love. And we take the filling of that lack into our own hands, and we don’t love God, neighbor, or ourselves well in the process.

Sin isn’t being human; sin is what we are left with when we choose to live in ways that are subhuman. Sin is what happens when we ground our understanding of who we are and why we are here in lack, not love. The symptoms (violence, greed, hate, etc.) of sin are painful, but until we focus on the root cause, healing can’t begin.

One of the central metaphors in the Bible for salvation is dying and rising. Jesus dies and rises, and in turn we are invited to that same path of transformation. Perhaps this is a helpful way to process what it means to leave behind our identity as “sinners.” We die to old ways of understanding who we are, and we rise into a new identity. We die to the lies we’ve been told about God and ourselves, and we rise into a new understanding of who God is and who we are. We die to sin; we are made alive–fully, humanly alive–to God. Here’s how Paul puts it later in Romans:

This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6v6-11, CEB)

Yes, we’ve all sinned, and perhaps our greatest sin is that we’ve been less-than-human with each other. We’ve all lived in ways that are beneath us, beneath our calling to be God’s partners and co-creators in the world. We’ve all been invited into the journey of transformation, a journey that makes us more human, not less. And we don’t make this journey alone. Jesus, our older brother, leads the way from sin to freedom, from death to life.